In pictures: Getting to know the wolverine

A wolverine visits the remains of a bison carcass killed by Yukon hunters in the Kloo Lake area. Hunters and trappers have reported an increase in wolverines visiting the bison kills in the area over the last few years. (Peter Mather/Yukon News)A wolverine visits the remains of a bison carcass killed by Yukon hunters in the Kloo Lake area. Hunters and trappers have reported an increase in wolverines visiting the bison kills in the area over the last few years. (Peter Mather/Yukon News)
A fox investigates one of the wolverine live traps during a blizzard. Wolverine crawl into the wooden boxes and pull at the meat that is wired to the inside, the wire releases the roof, which then traps the wolverine inside the wooden box. A signal is emailed to the biologists, who then need to arrive within eight hours. (Peter Mather/Yukon News)A fox investigates one of the wolverine live traps during a blizzard. Wolverine crawl into the wooden boxes and pull at the meat that is wired to the inside, the wire releases the roof, which then traps the wolverine inside the wooden box. A signal is emailed to the biologists, who then need to arrive within eight hours. (Peter Mather/Yukon News)
A small female wolverine is caught in one of the biologist’s live traps. Once a wolverine is caught in a trap, biologists must arrive at the location within eight hours, because the animals can chew through the four inch thick wood walls to escape. (Peter Mather/Yukon News)A small female wolverine is caught in one of the biologist’s live traps. Once a wolverine is caught in a trap, biologists must arrive at the location within eight hours, because the animals can chew through the four inch thick wood walls to escape. (Peter Mather/Yukon News)
A small female wolverine is quickly weighed by biologists before being fitted with a satellite collar and released back into the wild. Biologists are looking to determine the importance of snow to wolverines on the North Slope. In a land with no trees, snow becomes necessary for denning, evading predators and storing food. (Peter Mather/Yukon News)A small female wolverine is quickly weighed by biologists before being fitted with a satellite collar and released back into the wild. Biologists are looking to determine the importance of snow to wolverines on the North Slope. In a land with no trees, snow becomes necessary for denning, evading predators and storing food. (Peter Mather/Yukon News)
A wolverine runs from a live capture trap after having been fitted with a satellite collar by biologists. The Wildlife Conservation Society are looking to learn how the effects of fossil fuel extraction and climate change in their habitat will affect the North Slope populations. (Peter Mather/Yukon News)A wolverine runs from a live capture trap after having been fitted with a satellite collar by biologists. The Wildlife Conservation Society are looking to learn how the effects of fossil fuel extraction and climate change in their habitat will affect the North Slope populations. (Peter Mather/Yukon News)
A wolverine fitted with a satellite collar is released from a live trap during a blizzard. (Peter Mather/Yukon News)A wolverine fitted with a satellite collar is released from a live trap during a blizzard. (Peter Mather/Yukon News)
A small female wolverine feasts on a caribou carcass on the side of a mountain in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The caribou was one of eight that biologists found on the side of the mountain. Based on animal tracks, the team believes that a pack of wolves chased a small herd of caribou over a cliff resulting in the death of numerous animals. The caribou carcasses fed wolverines, wolves, foxes, ravens, golden eagles and bears for over a month period. (Peter Mather/Yukon News)A small female wolverine feasts on a caribou carcass on the side of a mountain in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The caribou was one of eight that biologists found on the side of the mountain. Based on animal tracks, the team believes that a pack of wolves chased a small herd of caribou over a cliff resulting in the death of numerous animals. The caribou carcasses fed wolverines, wolves, foxes, ravens, golden eagles and bears for over a month period. (Peter Mather/Yukon News)
An Inupiaq woman watches for bowhead whales on a hunt outside of the community of Utqiagvik. For the local Inupiat communities along the coast, wolverine furs are prized by trappers and whalers alike. During whaling season along the coast, every second man, woman or child has a wolverine rimmed hood on their parka. (Peter Mather/Yukon News)An Inupiaq woman watches for bowhead whales on a hunt outside of the community of Utqiagvik. For the local Inupiat communities along the coast, wolverine furs are prized by trappers and whalers alike. During whaling season along the coast, every second man, woman or child has a wolverine rimmed hood on their parka. (Peter Mather/Yukon News)
A wolverine digs out a snow hole on the North Slope. (Peter Mather/Yukon News)A wolverine digs out a snow hole on the North Slope. (Peter Mather/Yukon News)
A grizzly bear peers into a wolverine snow hole in early spring. When the grizzlies come out in the early spring, they search the landscapes for carrion. They often will steal dead caribou and moose from wolverines and wolves, sleeping on the carcasses to claim the as their own. (Peter Mather/Yukon News)A grizzly bear peers into a wolverine snow hole in early spring. When the grizzlies come out in the early spring, they search the landscapes for carrion. They often will steal dead caribou and moose from wolverines and wolves, sleeping on the carcasses to claim the as their own. (Peter Mather/Yukon News)
Wolverine biologist Tom Glass inspects a snow hole recently used by a wolverine. Glass’ study hopes to determine the importance of deep snow for wolverines on Alaska’s North Slope. As climate change takes effect, snow is melting three weeks earlier than 30 years ago. (Peter Mather/Yukon News)Wolverine biologist Tom Glass inspects a snow hole recently used by a wolverine. Glass’ study hopes to determine the importance of deep snow for wolverines on Alaska’s North Slope. As climate change takes effect, snow is melting three weeks earlier than 30 years ago. (Peter Mather/Yukon News)
Oil and gas development in Deadhorse, Alaska. Under the Trump Administration, new oil and gas fields are being opened up across the North Slope including in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The possible impacts on wolverine populations is not known. (Peter Mather/Yukon News)Oil and gas development in Deadhorse, Alaska. Under the Trump Administration, new oil and gas fields are being opened up across the North Slope including in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The possible impacts on wolverine populations is not known. (Peter Mather/Yukon News)

Peter Mather

Special to the News

The mountains of northern Alaska gradually recede into a vast and seemingly eternal white plain stretching for miles until culminating at the Arctic Ocean. This coastal plain, known as the North Slope, appears to be a lifeless barren region of the world. It is remote and when temperatures drop into the -50 C range mere survival seems beyond the reach of any living creature.

This is where the wolverine thrives. Known as one of the toughest animals on the planet, wolverines have been known to chase down a caribou for 30 miles until the exhausted 200-pound animal collapses and falls prey to the tenacious 30-pound snow machine.

Wolverines, or Qavvik in Inupiaq, are supremely adapted to snow and have clearly defined territories. Within these boundaries, they dig numerous snow holes that expand into a network of underground tunnels. The snow holes serve as natal dens, rendezvous sites, food caches and are their only reprieve when being chased by their foremost predator – the Arctic wolf.

The wolverine’s relationship with the Arctic wolf is a catch-22. While wolverines are vulnerable to the wrath of Arctic wolves, they also depend on the Arctic wolf for much of their food source. Wolves are incredibly efficient predators of caribou and moose, but after their initial feast on a freshly killed ungulate, the carcass slowly freezes and it becomes difficult for a wolf to rip into the frozen fresh.

This is where the wolverine comes into its own. A wolverine’s jaws enable it to easily tear into frozen carrion in a way no other animal – save a grizzly bear – can. The wolverine’s jaws are so strong they can easily crack the bones of a moose. Once a wolf abandons its kill, wolverines will use their noses, known to scent mountain goats buried by avalanches under 20 feet of hard-packed snow, to find the abandoned kills sites.

Over the last three decades, studies of threatened wolverine landscapes in the lower 48 states have suggested that the primary requirement for healthy wolverine populations is an abundance of late spring snowpack. Maps showing late spring snowpack along the border with Canada correlate almost exactly with the remnant wolverine territories on the continental United States.

Wolverine biologist Tom Glass spent three field seasons in northern Alaska studying late spring snowpack and wolverine dens to determine what depth of snowpack is ideal for wolverines. He also studied how wolverine populations in the lower 48 and Alaska might be affected by snowpack changes brought on by climate change.

On top of the threat facing wolverines from petroleum-based climate change, industry infrastructure has spider-webbed across the North Slope and is set to expand into ANWR. Glass is also studying the effects of industry to determine if wolverines on the tundra have adapted to the roads and pipeline, or if wolverines define their territories by avoiding the industries’ infrastructure.

For the local Inupiat communities along the coast, wolverine furs are prized by trappers and whalers alike. During whaling season along the coast, every second man, woman or child has a parka trimmed with wolverine fur around the hood. Wolverine parka trimming or ‘ruff’ is well known for its ability to whisk moisture from breath without freezing up.

For the hardy Inupiat people of the Arctic Coast, climate change and oil and gas development also provide an oddly conflicting balance of life. The industry sustains the strong economy on the North Slope in the short term, while the effects of climate change brought on by the use of oil and gas permanently threaten their culture and their homes, which will eventually be lost to coastline deterioration in the coming decades.

So little is known about this fascinating animal. We are just beginning to understand and appreciate their story through biologists like Glass and through the Inupiat trappers on the North Slope.

Contact the Yukon News at editor@yukon-news.com

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